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Cameras' return to trials likely

One of the state's top judges told a forum here Wednesday on "Media and the Courts" he does not expect defendant rights to be affected much if the state allows television cameras back into the courts.

Court of Appeals Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr., speaking in Erie County Hall before a courtroom full of judges, lawyers, reporters and the public, said he expects that courts at first "will have to wrestle with" possible prejudicial issues affecting all sides in court cases, civil and criminal.

But he added that he "doubts that there are a lot of people really opposed to cameras in the courts."

The State Senate approved letting cameras back into the courts Tuesday. The Assembly has not yet voted on it.

Mickey H. Osterreicher of Buffalo, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, contended that the State Legislature let a 10-year "experiment" with cameras in the courts die in 1997 only due to the O.J. Simpson trial "circus."

Noting that the circus at Simpson's trial "was really outside the courtroom," Osterreicher and WIVB-TV anchorwoman Lisa Flynn argued that televised criminal trials have never led to the reversals of convictions in New York State or anywhere else in the country.

Noted trial attorneys Mark J. Mahoney and Carl Dobozin complained that cameras will make it harder to get nervous witnesses to testify and that it is foolish to believe cameras won't have a troubling impact on defendants.

After Pigott noted Syracuse courtrooms now have television cameras built into them, State Supreme Court Justice Sharon S. Townsend, administrative judge of the Buffalo-based Eighth Judicial District, noted that they were paid for by the Syracuse media.

Townsend said she has made such an offer to Buffalo-area media but has yet to hear from anyone on that proposal.

Rod Watson, a Buffalo News columnist and urban affairs editor, bemoaned "manpower shortages" affecting the "people-driven" advantages of the print media nationwide. He conceded television's impact on the public's perceptions of the legal system probably "would be good for everybody."

Lee Coppola, dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, himself a former award-winning print and broadcast journalist, said a problem currently is "the distrust the legal community has of the media."

Citing the growth of law and court-related television series and increasing coverage of legal matters, Coppola said he has found "there is no better human drama than in a court of law."

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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